Precisionism
History, Characteristics, American Industrial Landscape Painting.
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Amoskeag Canal (1948)
Currier Museum of Art.
By Charles Sheeler.
An example of a new type of
20th century realism painting.

Precisionism (flourished 1920s)

What is Precisionism? - Characteristics

It was an American art movement, made up of a loosely associated group of painters, which flourished during the interwar period, especially the 1920s, when it coincided with the prestigious Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925, and the Machine-Age Exposition staged in New York in 1927. Recalling aspects of Cubism and Futurism, the movement was initially without a name or manifesto. Its members were associated solely through their common style, and were known by a variety of labels such as "Cubist-Realists", "Immaculates", "Sterilists" or "modern classicists". Precisionism may be seen as a forerunner of the later broad realist movement known as American Scene Painting.


Radiator Building (1927)
Private Collection.
By Georgia O'Keeffe.

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Influences and Style

Precisionism was inspired by elements from earlier modern art movements, notably the technological aesthetic of Futurism, and the geometric overlapping planes of Cubism, but it remained first and foremost an American movement. Rooted in the newly emerging machine-age, dominated by skyscrapers, (see also: American Architecture) a new technological environment and a growing road and rail network, Precisionist paintings typically sought to capture this new industrial landscape in precise, simplified and sharply defined, geometrical forms. This general approach was influenced to an extent by the sharp focus and cropping techniques of 20th century American photographers. (The style was sometimes called "sharp-focus realism".) However, Precisionism remained a broad movement and embraced a wide spectrum of styles from semi-photorealism to semi-abstraction.

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Painters

The most important Precisionist painters were Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), George Ault (1891-1948), Joseph Stella (1877-1946), Ralston Crawford (1906-78), Morton Schamberg (1881-1918), Stuart Davis (1894-1964), and Niles Spencer (1893-1952).

Development

The movement was christened "Precisionism" in 1927, by Alfred H. Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while early patrons of the idiom in New York included Charles Daniel of the Daniel Gallery, Stephen Bourgeois of the Bourgeois Gallery, Alfred Stieglitz (husband of Georgia O'Keeffe) of the Intimate Gallery and An American Place, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney of the Whitney Studio Club, and (from 1931) the Whitney Museum of American Art. Precisionists focused on urban settings, often with optically impressive structures like bridges and skyscrapers, as well as scenes of heavy industry featuring steel mills, coal mines, and the like. (See also: Skyscraper architecture: 1850-present.) Curiously, figures rarely appeared in Precisionist paintings, and there is little overt social comment. Even so, artists still managed to imbue their pictures with a sense of the conflict between technology as progress or soulless dehumanization, though more often the new industrial landscape was depicted through the eyes of a neutral if fascinated observer. As it was, the Precisionism painting movement coincided with the highpoint of utopian confidence in machines and machinery, a confidence that rapidly diminished with the advent of World War II and the new Atomic age. But it went on to influence other 20th century painters involved in American Magic Realism and Pop Art.

Selected List of Precisionist Paintings

Charles Sheeler
Delmonico Building (1926), Lithograph, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Criss-Crossed Conveyors, Ford River Rouge Plant (1927) The Met, NYC
Machinery (1920) Tempera/pencil, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
American Landscape (1930) Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Americana (1931) Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Amoskeag Canal (1948) Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire.
Note: as well as painting, Sheeler was one of the greatest photographers in early 20th century America.

Charles Demuth
I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928) Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Buildings Abstraction, Lancaster (1930) Whitney Museum of American Art
Chimney and Watertower (1931) Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Georgia O'Keeffe
Street, New York I (1926) Private Collection
Radiator Building, Night New York (1927) Detroit Institute of Arts
Radiator Building (1927) Fisk University, Nashville

Joseph Stella
Brooklyn Bridge (1919-20) Yale University Art Gallery

Stuart Davis
Lucky Strike (1921) Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Steeple and Street (1922) Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.

Ralston Crawford
Maitland Bridge (1938) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Lights in an Aircraft Plant (1945) National Gallery of Art Washington, DC.

George Ault
Bright Light at Russell's Corners (1946) Smithsonian American Art Museum.

For collections which specialize in American art or which include precisionist paintings, see: Art Museums in America.

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